UK work policies not fit for people living with Long Covid

Back to news
Generic image of Covid-19 virus.

New research has found current sickness absence and return to work policies in the workplace are unfit for purpose for those living with Long Covid.

In one of the first qualitative studies to investigate attempts to return to employment by people with Long Covid, researchers from the University of Stirling and the Universities of Oxford and York, spoke to 65 adults, in 2021 and 2022, who were dealing with continuing disability as a result of the condition.

They found that existing workplace policies that classify employees simply as either ‘able’ or ‘disabled’ are not helpful for people with illnesses, like Long Covid, which are unpredictable, often involve invisible symptoms, and vary in their severity.

Dr Alice MacLean, of the University of Stirling’s Institute of Social Marketing and Health (ISMH), said: “Long Covid is not yet officially classified as a disability in the UK and there is very little advice for people with Long Covid on how best to return to work.

“Study participants told us that existing sickness absence, return to work and welfare policies do not meet the needs of workers with Long Covid, and that they often experienced a lack of support on attempting to return to work.

“As well as trying to manage the demands of work alongside their ongoing symptoms, they also had the additional tasks of educating employers and colleagues about the debilitating effects of their symptoms and negotiating workplace adaptations, such as a change in role, working hours, or workplace location.

“Many talked about feelings of sadness, guilt or fear about being unable to work as well as they had done before and said that people at work often did not recognise the severity of their symptoms nor realise how much symptoms prevented them from being able to work in the same ways as they had previously.”

Dr Alice MacLean head and shoulders image. Dr Alice MacLean, of the Institute of Social Marketing and Health, worked on the new study.

People with Long Covid have experienced marked changes in their ability to participate in paid employment. Economic inactivity has risen significantly among people with self-reported Long Covid in the UK, compared to those without Long Covid. More than 50 countries, including most recently Belgium, have classified Covid-19 as an occupational disease, providing workers who have long-term disability associated with Covid-19 infection with long-term disability and additional financial protection and compensation.

Participants also told researchers about experiencing relapses when attempting to return to work before they were well enough to or not returning to work gradually enough.

One said: “It took me a really long time before I accepted that I wasn’t well enough to work. I probably drove my managers mad, because I would email every couple of weeks and say ,‘Right, I think I’m better, I’ll be back on Monday’, and then lo and behold, I would be ill again.”

The research, funded by the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office is published in Disability & Society. It is one of several studies led by Stirling health experts which seeks to understand the lived experiences and support needs of people suffering from the long-term effects of Covid-19.

The team is currently recruiting participants for a new study which will seek to find out more about the impact of Long Covid on frontline public sector staff – nurses, teachers, ambulance clinicians and police officers – in Scotland. For further information on the study, or to sign up to be involved, visit the Institute for Social Marketing and Health blog.

You may also be interested in